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Voices From The Past

Authenticity in historical fiction


Harper Lee could have been advising fiction writers when Atticus Finch says, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… climb in his skin and walk around in it.’ Writing from someone else’s point of view, walking around inside their skin, is a challenge that fiction writers face every day.

Writing my own crime novels, I was initially surprised to find it was easier writing from the perspective of a killer than a detective. After several days spent wondering what might be bubbling away under the surface of my subconscious, I realised that while my detective has to follow rules and behave plausibly, my killers are free to follow any crazy logic I choose. Paradoxically, killers have provided the most liberating characters’ minds to walk around in, within the realms of my imagination.

Crime writer Anthony Quinn talks about the ‘inner landscapes’ of the writing process. We all understand what this means. Yet we also recognise that writing doesn’t take place in a moral or historical vacuum; when and where we live informs our thoughts and imaginations. In writing a first-person narrative set in the sixteenth century, I had to consider not only plot, structure and characters, and all the other elements we think about when writing novels, but also how my female narrator might view her own place in the world.

Attitudes in society are constantly changing. Just over a hundred years ago, Henri Barbusse refers, quite casually, to ‘women, who have less intellect than men’ and until the emergence of twentieth-century feminism, there was a widespread view that women were intellectually inferior. Yet we don’t have to look very far to discover much earlier challenges to this belief. In the fourteenth century, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath explains her tactics for dominating her husbands.

I governed hem so wel, after my lawe,
That each of hem ful blissful was […].

Although her professed ideal was not ‘sovereyntee’ over men but equality with them, she is clearly stronger than the men in her life. Admittedly the Wife of Bath speaks to us through a male creator, but she remains a female character with a strikingly modern voice.

I am fascinated by writers whose voices reach us directly from the past. Not only do they open a door into a vanished world, but their limitations can reveal how blinkered we ourselves can be, our thoughts circumscribed by our own experience. Yet despite our differences, they also show us how human nature never really changes. In researching life in sixteenth-century Italy for my historical novel, I came across Veronica Franco, a cortigiana onesta, or intellectual courtesan, who wrote poetry and letters published from 1575 to 1580. She says of women:

When we too are armed and trained, we can convince men that we have hands, feet, and a heart like yours; and although we may be delicate and soft, some men who are delicate are also strong; and others, coarse and harsh, are cowards. Women have not yet realised this […].

Elizabeth I of England read and wrote Italian. It is interesting to think she may have been influenced by Franco’s writing in composing her famous speech delivered at Tilbury in 1588:

I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king [...] I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general [...]

So, not all women in the past were considered inferior, or perceived themselves as weak in comparison with men. While people have always been influenced by contemporary views, they have also been free to develop their own independent radical opinions.

My historical novel is set in the Jewish ghetto of Venice during the turbulent years 1560 to 1571. Outside the ghetto a great deal was happening. The Catholic Church was threatened by Protestantism from within and Islam from without, the resulting paranoia fuelling the atrocities of the Inquisition. Along with untold destruction of human life, this period also witnessed a cultural renaissance accompanied by the rise of the great printing shops of Venice. The invention of printing had a huge and lasting impact on the whole world. All of this was fertile ground for research.

For months I read about the social and political turmoil of the period, the European witch craze, which saw up to 100,000 people burned at the stake, and the violent conflict between Christianity and Islam. In addition, I travelled to Venice, Budapest and Marrakesh to visit the places where my characters lived. My outward research into life at that time was riveting, and I studied everything I could find about the period.

Research is a beguiling path to tread. The temptation to lose myself in history became irresistible, and I ended up losing sight of my story altogether, producing a trilogy filled with historical incident and anecdotes. Eventually this trilogy, which was basically packed with information dumps, had to be reduced to one book that focuses on the life and experiences of a single protagonist. Herman Melville was able to include lengthy passages of information about whales in his mid-nineteenth century novel Moby Dick, but a novelist writing in the twenty-first century has to be more focused on the story.

Interesting as my research proved, by far the greatest challenge of this project was to write in the voice of a young woman living in the sixteenth century. This meant thinking myself into the hopes and fears and world view of a woman alive at that time, a world view very different to my own. God would have been a very real presence in her community, along with superstition. Within the world of my book, in a life of bitter suffering, through all her misfortune she never questions her religious faith. An intelligent woman with an enquiring mind, she accepts adversity as her divinely appointed lot. Yet she loves and fears and hopes, just as I do.

There has been a lot of debate raging (quite literally in many cases) about cultural appropriation. Nobel prizewinning author Kazuo Ishiguro is quoted in The Bookseller as saying that, ‘Novelists should feel free to write from whichever viewpoint they wish or represent all kinds of views.’ He adds that ‘we do have the obligation to teach ourselves and to do research and to treat people with respect if we’re going to have them feature in our work’ and there must be ‘decency towards people outside of one’s own immediate experience.’

My protagonist’s world view and beliefs could hardly be more different to my own. In telling her story I endeavoured to create an authentic sense of a young woman’s experience of a world that is lost to us today. In writing in her voice, I tried to see the world through the limitations of her knowledge and experience, and to appreciate what she would consider her strengths: her fortitude in the face of suffering, God as a constant presence in her life, her unquestioning conformity — and all expressed through the prism of modern English.

This raises an important question: how authentic can we be as writers of historical fiction? It may seem arrogant to try and speak on behalf of people who lived in a past era, but perhaps distance offers us a clear perspective on life in a past age, enabling us to write more justly about a period than someone alive at that time could possibly have done. This leads on to the question of whether we are actually the best chroniclers of the zeitgeist of our own time. Are we inevitably bogged down by current views and prejudices, and so unable to see things with any degree of impartiality?

Whether books are set in contemporary times or in the past, writing from the point of view of a fictional character is always speculative. Through the medium of words, we attempt to recreate worlds that exist only in our imaginations. To do so convincingly is the greatest challenge of writing fiction.

Leigh Russell is best known for her Geraldine Steel crime series, which has been shortlisted for major awards and sold over a million books. She has also written dystopian and historical novels, due for publication in 2021.

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